Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Quotes: 1984: Spring - A Choice of Futures (1984) by Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke

1984: Spring – A Choice of Futures

Granada, 1984.

First published by Dell Rey/Ballantine, February 1984.
Granada edition, July 1984.


It is not only good manners, but good sense, to acknowledge sources of inspiration; a writer who freely admits his borrowings is seldom accused of plagiarism. The title of this book was actually suggested by the excellent movie Summer of ’42, but I readily admit that it contains resonances of a far more famous work.

As I have (with a little help from Stanley Kubrick) already annexed two dates in the future, it may seem inexcusably greedy to trespass on the territory which George Orwell staked-out thirty-five years ago. However, when this book appears, 1984 will belong to us all, as it recedes into our common past. I am using the date as a marker, to pin down a moment of time. Or you may compare it with a railway-station name-board, glimpsed for a moment through the window of an express, which arouses disquieting memories before it flashes by into the darkness, hopefully never to be seen again…

So much has been written about Orwell’s 1984, and will doubtless be appearing in the year itself, that I have no intention of adding unnecessarily to the verbiage. I never liked the book (but it was not meant to be liked) and thought it unsatisfactory as a piece of scientific prediction (again, something that was not its main objective). My discomfort, I suspect, was that of the typical liberal optimist when forced to confront the harsher realities of political life.


Today, we can recognise that Orwell’s book is a unique work of genius, beyond both praise and criticism. It fulfills perfectly – better even than Brave New World – Ray Bradbury’s claim: ‘I don’t try to describe the future – I try to prevent it.’

For, thanks at least partly to Orwell’s warning, his worst fears have not come true. Yet we have other fears, more terrible than his wildest nightmares. Some of these I consider in the essays and speeches that follow, but against his ominous date I have deliberately set the hopeful word ‘Spring’, which uplifts the heart with its message of renewal and rebirth.

Though it may be an illusion brought on by wishful thinking, it does seem that despite the horrors and miseries of the present time, there are faint signs that the worst of the world’s long winter may be over. The pessimism, violence – even despair – so characteristic of the past two decades are no longer quite as fashionable as they used to be.

Apocalypse may yet be cancelled; let us dare to be hopeful.

Spring 1983


Beyond the Global Village[1]

There is always something new to be learned from the past, and I would like to open with two anecdotes from the early days of the telephone. They illustrate perfectly how difficult – if not impossible – it is to anticipate the social impact of a truly revolutionary invention.

Though the first story is now rather famous – and I must apologize to those who’ve heard it before – I hope it’s unfamiliar to most of you.

When news of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention reached the United Kingdom, the Chief Engineer of the British Post Office failed to be impressed. ‘The Americans,’ he said loftily, ‘have need of the telephone – but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys…’

The second story I heard only quite recently, and in some ways it’s even more instructive. In contrast to the British engineer, the mayor of a certain American city was wildly enthusiastic. He thought that the telephone was a marvellous device and ventured this stunning prediction: ‘I can see the time,’ he said solemnly, ‘when every city will have one.’

If, during the course of this talk, you think I am getting a little too fanciful, please remember that mayor…


During the coming decade, more and more businessmen, well-heeled tourists and virtually all newspersons will be carrying attaché-case-sized units that will permit direct two-way communication with their homes and offices, via the most convenient satellite. These will provide voice, telex and video facilities (still photos and, for those who need it, live TV coverage). As these units become cheaper, smaller and more universal, they will make travellers totally independent of national communications systems.

The implications of this are profound – and not only to media news-gatherers who will no longer be at the mercy of censors or inefficient (sometimes nonexistent) postal and telegraph services. It means the end of closed societies and will lead ultimately – to repeat a phrase I heard Arnold Toynbee use forty years ago – to the unification of the world.

You may think this is a naive prediction, because many countries wouldn’t let such subversive machines across their borders. But they would have no choice; the alternative would be economic suicide, because very soon they would get no tourists and no businessmen offering foreign currency. They’d get only spies, who would have no trouble at all concealing the powerful new tools of their ancient trade.

What I am saying, in fact, is that the debate about the free flow of information which has been going on for so many years will soon be settled – by engineers, not politicians. (Just as physicists, not generals, have now determined the nature of war.)


The transistor radio has already brought news, information and entertainment to millions who would otherwise have been almost totally deprived of so much that we take for granted. But TV is a far more powerful medium, and thanks to the new generation of satellites, its time has now arrived.

I hesitate to add to the megawords – if not gigawords – written about education TV and direct-broadcast satellites. But despite all this verbiage, there still seem to be a number of points that are not generally understood, perhaps because of the human dislike for facing awkward truths.


In any event, technology has once again superseded politics. All over the United States, the Caribbean and South America, small ‘receive only’ dishes are sprouting like mushrooms, tuning in to the hundreds of satellite channels now available – and there’s little that anyone can do about it, without spending a lot of money on scramblers and encrypting devices which may sometimes defeat their own purpose.

In Sri Lanka, radio amateurs with quite simple equipment have been receiving excellent pictures from the Soviet Union’s powerful EKRAN satellites; thanks to these, we were able to enjoy the Moscow Olympics. I would like to express my gratitude to the Russian engineers for their continuing large-scale demonstration, over the whole of Asia, that the politicians are not only talking technical nonsense, but are ignoring their own proclamations.

They are not the only ones guilty of hypocrisy, as my good friend Dr Yash Pal pointed out in these words several years ago:

In the drawing rooms of large cities you meet many people who are concerned with the damage that one is going to cause to the integrity of rural India by exposing her to the world outside. After they have lectured you about the dangers of corrupting this innocent, beautiful mass of humanity, they usually turn round and add: “Well, now that we have a satellite, when are we going to see some American programmes?” Of course, they themselves are immune to cultural domination or foreign influences.

When I quoted this at the 1981 UNESCO IPDC meeting in Paris[2], I added these words:

I am afraid that cocktail-party intellectuals are the same everywhere. Because we frequently suffer from the scourge of information pollution, we find it hard to imagine its even deadlier opposite – information starvation. I get very annoyed when I hear arguments, usually from those who have been educated beyond their intelligence, about the virtues of keeping happy backward peoples in ignorance. Such an attitude seems like that of a fat man preaching the benefits of fasting to a starving beggar.

And I am not impressed by the attacks on television because of the truly dreadful programmes it often carries. Every TV programme has some educational content; the cathode tube is a window on the world – indeed on many worlds. Often it is a very murky window, but I have slowly come to the conclusion that, on balance, even bad TV is better than no TV at all.

Many will disagree with this – and I sympathize with them. Electronic cultural imperialism will sweep away much that is good, as well as much that is bad. Yet it will only accelerate changes which were in any case inevitable; and on the credit side, the new media will preserve for future generations the customs, performing arts and ceremonies of our time in a way that was never possible in any earlier age.


I would like to end this survey of our telecommunications future with one of the most remarkable predictions ever made. In the closing decade of the nineteenth century an electrical engineer, W. E. Ayrton, was lecturing at London’s Imperial Institute about the most modern communications devices, the submarine telegraph cable. He ended with what must, to all his listeners, have seemed the wildest fantasy:

There is no doubt that the day will come, maybe when you and I are forgotten, when copper wires, gutta-percha coverings and iron sheathings will be relegated to the Museum of Antiquities. Then, when a person wants to telegraph to a friend, he knows not where, he will call in an electro-magnetic voice, which will be heard loud by him who has the electro-magnetic ear, but will be silent to everyone else. He will call ‘Where are you?’ and the reply will come ‘I am at the bottom of the coal-mine’ or ‘Crossing the Andes’ or ‘In the middle of the Pacific’; or perhaps no reply will come at all, and he may then conclude that his friend is dead.

This truly astonishing prophecy was made in 1897, long before anyone could imagine how it might be fulfilled. A century later, in 1997, it will be on the verge of achievement, because the wristwatch telephone will be coming into general use. And if you still believe that such a device is unlikely, ask yourself this question: who could have imagined the personal watch, back in the Middle Ages – when the only clocks were clanking, room-sized mechanisms, the pride and joy of a few cathedrals?

For that matter, many of you carry on your wrists miracles of electronics that would have been beyond belief even twenty years ago. The symbols that flicker across those digital displays now merely give time and date. When the zeros flash up at the end of the century, they will do far more than that. They will give you direct access to most of the human race, through the invisible networks girdling our planet.

The long-heralded global village is almost upon us, but it will last for only a flickering moment in the history of mankind. Before we even realize that it has come, it will be superseded – by the global family.


Apollo Plus Ten[3]

When Neil Armstrong stepped out on to the Sea of Tranquillity, the science fiction writers had been there for 2,000 years. But history is always more imaginative than any prophet. No one had ever dreamed that the first chapter of lunar exploration would end after only a dozen men had walked upon the Moon.

Yet it was not the first time when ambition had outrun technology. In the Antarctic summer of 1911–12, ten men reached the South Pole, and five returned. They used only the most primitive of tools and energy sources – snowshoes, dog sleds, their own muscles. Once the pole had been attained, it was abandoned for nearly half a century. And then, in the 1957-8 International Geophysical Year, men came back with all the resources of modern technology. Aircraft and snow cats carried the new explorers swiftly and safely over the frozen hell where Robert Falcon Scott perished with his companions. For 20 years now, summer and winter, men and women have been living at the South Pole.

So it will be with the Moon. When we go there again, it will be in vehicles that will make the Saturn 5 – for all its staggering complexity and its 150 million horsepower – look like a clumsy, inefficient dinosaur of the early space age. And this time, we will stay.

In 1969 the giant multi-stage rocket, discarded piecemeal after a single mission, was the only way of doing the job. That the job should be done was a political decision, made by a handful of men. As William Sims Bainbridge pointed out in his 1976 book The Spaceflight Revolution; a Sociological Study, space travel is a technological mutation that should not really have arrived until the 21st century. But thanks to the ambition and genius of Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev, and their influence over individuals as disparate as Kennedy and Khruschchev, the Moon – like the South Pole – was reached half a century ahead of time.

We have bequeathed the solar system to our children, not great-grandchildren, and they will be duly thankful. At the very least, this gift will enable them to look back on such transient crises as energy and material shortages with amused incredulity.

For the resources of the universe that is now opening up are, by all human standards, infinite. There are no limits to growth among the stars. Unfortunately, there is a tragic mismatch between our present needs and our capabilities. The conquest of space will not arrive soon enough to save millions from leading starved and stunted lives.


It may be that the old astrologers had the truth exactly reversed when they believed that the stars controlled the destinies of men. The time may come when men control the destinies of stars.

Space Flight – Imagination and Reality[4]

The exploration of space was anticipated for centuries before the reality met the dream. It is not only interesting but also valuable to look back on some of those old ideas and speculations, to see what we can learn from their successes as well as their failures. For much that has occurred since the Space Age opened in 1957 was foreseen with remarkable accuracy; yet there were also some stunning surprises. So it will be in the future.  

It is somewhat ironic that the first truly scientific space voyage involved supernatural forces. This was the Somnium (1643) written by no less a man than Kepler – to whom astronautics owes as much as to Newton himself. The discoverer of the laws governing the motion of planets – and hence of spaceships – was both a scientist and a mystic; his background may be judged by the fact that his own mother barely escaped execution for sorcery.

In the Somnium, Kepler employed demons to carry his hero to the Moon, and made the significant remark that as the voyage progressed it would no longer be necessary to use any force for propulsion. His description of the Moon, based on the knowledge revealed by the newly invented telescope, was also as scientifically accurate as was possible at the time – though like many later writers, he assumed the existence of water, air, and life.

As is well known, demons are often unreliable servants, though perhaps not as unreliable as some of the early rockets. Other writers have used mysterious mental forces to carry their heroes to other worlds – often at speeds far exceeding the miserable velocity of light. Olaf Stapledon used such a device in his magnificent Starmaker (1937), as did C. S. Lewis in Perelandra (1944; also known as Voyage to Venus). Descending slightly in the literary scale, Edgar Rice Burroughs used the power of the mind to transport his muscular hero, John Carter, to the planet Mars – or Barsoom, as its inhabitants call it. His example had a great influence on Carl Sagan, who has written: ‘I can remember spending many an hour in my boyhood, arms resolutely outstretched in an empty field, imploring what I believed to be Mars to transport me there. It never worked.’ From what we now know of conditions on Mars, it was very lucky for Carl that it didn’t...

Some early writers who did not approve of trafficking with supernatural powers – transactions in which, however carefully one read the contract, there always seemed to be some unsuspected penalty clause – used natural agencies to convey their heroes away from Earth. This was the case with the ancestor of all space-travel stories, the Vera Historia (True History) written by Lucian of Samos in A.D. 160. In this misleadingly-entitled tale, a ship sailing in the dangerous and unexplored region beyond the pillars of Hercules was caught up in a whirlwind and deposited on the Moon. It is true that the Bay of Biscay has a bad reputation, but this must have been an unusually rough passage.

About a millennium and a half later, the great Jules Verne improved on this slightly with his Hector Servadac (1877), an unlikely tale in which a comet grazes the Earth, scoops up two Frenchmen, and takes them on a trip around the solar system. As they explore the comet they encounter bits of the Earth that it had acquired during its collision – some of them still inhabited. A fragment of the Rock of Gibraltar is discovered, occupied by two Englishmen playing chess and, according to Verne, quite unaware of their predicament. I doubt this: it seems much more likely that they were perfectly well aware of the fact that they were aboard a comet, but had come to a crucial point in their game and, with typically English sang froid, refused to be distracted by such trivialities.

Perhaps the most ingenious use of natural forces was that employed by Cyrano de Bergerac in his classic Voyages to the Moon and Sun (1656). In the first of his several interplanetary voyages, the motive power was provided by vials of dew strapped round his waist – for Cyrano very logically argued that as the sun sucked up the dew in the morning, it would carry him with it...

So much for magic; now for machines.

With the development of the scientific method in the 17th and 18th centuries, and a fuller understanding of what space travel really implied, authors went to greater lengths to give their stories some basis of plausibility, and the first primitive spaceships began to appear in literature. The discovery of explosives and the invention of artillery showed that there was one way of escaping from the Earth; and the ‘spacegun’ arrived on the scene.

The most famous version, of course, is that in Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865), but it was not the first. That dubious honour goes to an obscure Irish writer, Murtagh McDermot, who as early as 1728 wrote A Trip to the Moon. Amazingly, he used a spacegun to come home, after persuading the Selenites to dig a great hole containing 7,000 barrels of gunpowder. He placed himself in the middle of ten concentric wooden vessels, ‘to lessen the shock’, and provided himself with wings so that he could glide down to Earth when he arrived.

How did he get to the Moon in the first place? By rocket! Altogether a remarkable effort for two and a half centuries ago. McDermot was certainly much more farsighted than many of his successors.

Nearer our own time, it is difficult to say how seriously Verne took his mammoth cannon, because so much of the story is facetiously written, usually at the expense of the Americans. But he went to a great deal of trouble with his astronomical facts and figures; the ‘Columbiad’ was a 300-metre vertical barrel sunk in the Florida soil – not far from Cape Canaveral! – and packed with 200 tonnes of gun-cotton. The projectile itself was made of the newly-discovered wonder-metal, aluminium.

Ignoring the slightly impossibility of the passengers – or indeed the vehicle – surviving the concussion, Verne’s projectile must be considered as the first scientifically-conceived spacecraft. It had shock-absorbers, air-conditioning, padded walls with windows set in them, and similar arrangements which we now accept as commonplace in any well-ordered spaceship.

The last – I hope – spacegun was that devised by H. G. Wells for his film Things to Come (1936). It was visually spectacular, but of course scientific nonsense, and we members of the three-year-old British Interplanetary Society were quite upset. We wrote Mr Wells a ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ letter, and received a kind but unrepentant answer.


If you could make a gun long enough, of course, the initial shock might be reduced to acceptable figures; hence the concept of the launching track. The earliest version of this I have been able to discover is in a story called The Moon Conquerors (1930) by a German author, R. H. Romans. In this, a series of giant magnets was used to shoot a spaceship to the Moon, and many later authors have developed the same idea.

But the Earth-based launching track has some fundamental flaws. It would have to be at least a thousand kilometres long if human passengers were to survive the acceleration, so the cost would be astronomical. It could only do part of the job, though admittedly the most difficult part – the escape from Earth. The spacecraft would still require a self-contained propulsion system, for the landing and return. And as a last fatal defect – any object given the escape velocity of 11.2 kilometres a second near the surface of the Earth would burn up like a meteor in the dense lower atmosphere.

The only way an Earth-based launcher could operate is if it were built in the form of a slowly-ascending ramp, the whole width of equatorial Africa or South America, starting from sea level and climbing to a height of say twenty kilometres. I do not know if anyone has ever had the temerity to suggest this, so I cheerfully do so now.

More than thirty years ago (‘Electromagnetic Launching as a Major Contribution to Space-Flight’, JBIS, vol. 9, no. 6, November 1950[5]) I pointed out that the ideal place for a launcher is the Moon – the low gravity, and absence of atmosphere, makes it a perfect location. Such a launcher could be used for countless purposes, since it could economically project material – and even fragile human passengers – to almost any point in the solar system. This concept, re-christened the ‘mass launcher’, is the basis of the schemes for space-colonization recently popularized by Dr Gerald O’Neill (The High Frontier, 1976).


Though it was mentioned in passing from time to time – for example by the ingenious Cyrano de Bergerac – the rocket did not enter the literature of space-travel until surprisingly late. Its first serious appearance may have been in Verne’s sequel Round the Moon (1870), where it was used to change the orbit of the projectile. Verne – unlike the New York Times, in a notorious editorial about Goddard’s folly, half a century later – clearly understood that rockets could provide thrust in a vacuum. It is a pity he did not consider them adequate for the whole job; his impossible gun may have set back the conquest of space by years, though hardly by decades.

Popular attention began to be focused on rockets from 1925 onwards, with the appearance of serious technical literature and the rise of small experimental groups in Germany, the USSR and elsewhere. For a long time, fact and fiction were inextricably entangled; many of the pioneers were writers, and used their pens to spread the news that space-travel need no longer be fantasy. It is hard to believe that this pioneering era is only half a century ago, and that a mere forty years after the flight of the first liquid-fuelled rocket in 1926, men were preparing to go to the Moon.

The ‘Spaceflight Revolution’, as William Sims Bainbridge called it in his book of that name, was one of the swiftest and most remarkable in human history. Most technological developments arise naturally when some social need is matched by a corresponding invention; the steam engine, the telephone, the automobile are obvious examples. But, to be perfectly honest, no one really needed spaceships in the mid-20th century, and a lot of people still rather wish they’d go away. Sooner or later, of course, space transportation would have evolved, probably out of high-altitude aviation, but things didn’t happen that way. As Bainbridge points out, the imagination and determination of a mere handful of men – of whom the Russian Korolev and the German von Braun were by far the most important – opened up the space frontier decades ahead of any historically plausible scenario.

The full implications of this will not be known for centuries – but let me leave this analogy for you to meditate upon. In 1492 Christopher Columbus did something much more important than merely discovering America – which after all had been known to quite a few people for at least twenty thousand years. He opened up the road between the Old World and the New.

Yet some Renaissance Korolev or von Braun could have made that happen fifty – or a hundred – years earlier than it actually did; the Vikings almost succeeded. One day we may be very glad that we got to the Moon in 1969, instead of – well, 2001... or even 2051...

And to those who think that the landing on the Moon was merely a technological tour de force of little ultimate importance in human affairs, I offer another lesson from history. One of the early explorers of Australia reported proudly to his Mission Control, back in Whitehall: ‘I have now mapped this continent so thoroughly that no one need ever go there again.’ You may laugh – but as far as space is concerned, there are equally shortsighted people around today.

Among them I would include all those distinguished scientists who keep telling us that the exploration of space can best be carried out by robots. Well, Europe could have waited five hundred years and sent remote-controlled cameras to survey America. Of course, this is a ridiculous analogy – but then the whole debate is ridiculous. Robots are essential as pioneers, and there are environments which only they can penetrate. But there are also missions where it is far more effective – and even cheaper – to have men in the loop, if only to deal with unexpected emergencies. (Remember the Skylab salvage operation, and Apollo 13?)

However, cost-effectiveness is not the only criterion. Like all his fellow-primates, Man is an inquisitive animal, and seldom stops to calculate the number of bits per buck. He wants to go and see things for himself. And what he has discovered he never abandons, except temporarily – as in the case of the South Pole between 1912 and 1957, and the Moon between 1972 and 19–??

The science fiction writers, and the pioneers of astronautics, have imagined human settlements on all the worlds of the solar system – and even in space itself. They have dreamed that we will extend our commerce beyond the atmosphere, into the final frontier (to coin a phrase). And if anyone thinks that this idea is fantastic, let me remind him or her that half a century ago a single man in the Atlantic sky was headline news. How many thousands are up there at this very moment, dozing through the in-flight movie?

The analogy may be false; perhaps there is nothing in space to attract more than the occasional scientific mission or asteroid mining consortium. And even if the solar system is full of opportunity, it may be argued that the enormous cost of escaping from the Earth will always place a severe limit on our ability to exploit extra-terrestrial resources. Our great airports are already bad enough; even if we could afford it, do we really want a Space Shuttle taking off from somewhere on Earth every few minutes – and, almost as bad, booming back into the atmosphere?

Well, there is an alternative – and it’s not anti-gravity, which may be impossible even in theory. It’s the space elevator, or orbital tower, conceived in 1960 by the Russian engineer Yuri Artsutanov, and since re-invented at least five times.

For those of you who are not familiar with this at-first-sight preposterous idea, let me summarize briefly. It follows from the concept of stationary satellites, which everyone now takes for granted. Clearly, if a satellite can remain poised forever above the same spot on the equator, then in principle it should be possible to lower a cable from orbit to Earth, performing an Indian rope trick 36,000 kilometres high.

And if we can do that, we can go further. We can build an elevator system to send payloads into space without rockets, purely by electrical energy. This would totally transform the economics of spaceflight – as you will appreciate when I tell you that the cost, in energy, of carrying a man to the moon is less than ten dollars.

The engineering problems are of course enormous, but extensive studies have found no fundamental flaw in the concept, which is now the basis of a rapidly expanding literature, to which I refer those who would like more details.[6] Much ingenuity has now been applied to extending Artsutanov’s basic idea, and it appears – surprisingly – that ‘Skyhooks’ or ‘Jacob’s Ladders’ can be built to virtually any altitude, from any spot on the Earth – though at the cost of rather appalling mechanical complexities.

Whether these daring concepts will ever be realized in practice only the future will tell. But the imagination of the engineers has now opened up wholly new vistas in space, and also presents us with a beautiful paradox. On the small scale, space-travel will always be extremely expensive. Yet if – and it’s a big ‘if’ – it can ever be justified on a really massive scale, it could be one of the cheapest forms of transportation ever devised. Exactly as in the case of the familiar terrestrial elevator, a space elevator would require very little energy to run – because the traffic moving downwards would lift that on the way up. Of course, the capital cost would be enormous; but a well-designed space elevator could last for centuries and would be an even better long-term investment than that other expensive but highly profitable tourist attraction, the Great Pyramid.

Perhaps you may consider that the space elevator puts too much of a strain on the imagination – but without imagination, nothing is ever achieved, as the history of astronautics amply proves. Yet it is possible to have too much of a good thing; uncontrolled imagination can be an ever bigger menace than shortsighted conservatism, because it can lead to much greater disasters.

I would like to conclude with two dreadful, or at least tragi-comic, examples of this in our own field of interest. One is past history; the other remains a continuing nuisance.

For almost two generations, the planet Mars was central in all discussions of extra-terrestrial life, largely owing to the influence of one man, the American astronomer Percival Lowell. His dramatic claim to have discovered a network of apparently artificial ‘canals’ covering the face of the planet generated millions of words of controversy – not to mention whole libraries of fiction.

We now know, thanks to the Mariner and Viking space-probes, that the Martian canals are a total illusion, created in the mind’s eye from the infinity of detail that can be glimpsed on the planet during the rare moments of good seeing. Yet Lowell – and many other astronomers! – drew them consistently for decades. How could this happen? The explanation, I suspect, runs something like this:

Lowell was so determined to find intelligence on Mars that he created what he was looking for, as we have all done at some time or other. His drawings of Mars became more and more artificial, until eventually they looked like maps of the world’s airlines. As an artist can do, he created a style – which was copied by others who were infected by his enthusiasm. More sceptical astronomers saw merely the natural patterns of light and shade which we now know represent the real Mars. The canals were a – shall we say – infectious hallucination, but to Lowell they were perfectly real.

His wealth and prestige – not to mention his considerable literary gifts – enabled him to sustain the illusion. When his very able assistant A. E. Douglass eventually became sceptical – dis-illusioned and decided that the canals lay in the eye of the observer, what did Lowell do? He fired him – I am sure with genuine reluctance.

When Lowell died, so did the canals, though slowly. It took the Mariners and Vikings to inflict the final coup de grâce.

On a much larger scale, I am now convinced that something like this is responsible for the few UFO sightings that do not have trivial explanations.


So I would like to end by repeating, virtually unchanged, some words I addressed to the British Interplanetary Society in 1950[7] – seven years before the explosive dawn of the Space Age. After surveying the writings of the past, I posed this question: What will happen to tales of interplanetary adventure when space travel actually begins? Will they become extinct – as some foolish critics indeed predicted, the morning after Sputnik I?

This is what I said, thirty-two years ago:

When space travel is achieved, the frontier will merely shift outwards, and I think we can rely on the ingenuity of the authors to keep always a few jumps ahead of history. And how much more material they will have on which to base their tales! It should never be forgotten that, without some foundation of reality, science fiction would be impossible, and that therefore exact knowledge is the friend, not the enemy, of imagination and fantasy. It was only possible to write stories about the Martians when science had discovered that a certain moving point of light was a world. By the time that science has proved or disproved the existence of Martians, it will have provided hundreds of other interesting and less accessible worlds for the authors to get busy with.

So perhaps the interplanetary story will never lose its appeal, even if a time should come when all the cosmos has been explored and there are no more universes to beckon men outwards across infinity. If our descendants in that age are remotely human, and still indulge in art and science and similar nursery games, I think that they will not altogether abandon the theme of interplanetary flight – though their approach to it will be very different from ours.

To us, the interplanetary story provides a glimpse of the wonders whose dawn we shall see, but of whose full glory we can only guess. To them, on the other hand, it will be something achieved, a thing completed and done countless aeons ago. They may sometimes look back, perhaps a little wistfully, to the splendid, dangerous ages when the frontiers were being driven outwards across space, when no one knew what marvel or what terror the next returning ship might bring – when, for good or evil, the barriers set between the peoples of the universe were irrevocably breached. With all things achieved, all knowledge safely harvested, what more, indeed, will there be for them to do, as the lights of the last stars sink slowly towards evening, but to go back into history and relive again the great adventures of their remote and legendary past?

Yet we have the better bargain: for all these things still lie ahead of us.

The Discovery of the Solar System[8]

We have been privileged to live through the greatest age of exploration the world has ever known.

The discovery of our own planet took the whole of human history, and was completed only during this century – with the aid of space technology. Today, there are Earth Resources satellites continually surveying the globe, able to detect objects smaller than this building. And the military or reconnaissance satellites can do far better than that; they can tell what type of car you’re driving. There are no hidden places any more on this planet.

Yet until a mere twenty years ago – within the lifetime of virtually everyone here! – we were almost totally ignorant of conditions on the worlds around us; even the few facts we thought we knew have turned out to be wrong. The first phase of the Discovery of the Solar System occupied, very nearly, the period 1960–80, and there will now be a slight pause while we consolidate its results and prepare for Phase II, which should be well underway in the closing decade of this century.

Let me remind you of our state of ignorance at the dawn of the Space Age (Sputnik 1, 1957). Until then, all our knowledge of other heavenly bodies was obtained by means of telescopes – and there is a very definite limit to the amount of magnifying power one can use. That limit is set not by optics but by the disturbing effects of the Earth’s atmosphere – very obvious when one looks horizontally even a few kilometres.


By 1960 some three centuries of telescopic observations – mostly by amateur astronomers, because the professionals thought they had more important things to do – had produced maps of the Moon showing everything down to about half a kilometre across. But we were still quite uncertain about the exact nature of the lunar surface; speculations varied all the way from sheets of lava, seas of dust – even ice, believe it or not! There was also a bitter debate about the origin of the lunar craters; some people (mostly the Americans) thought that they were produced by the impact of giant meteorites; others (especially the British) were convinced that they were home-grown – that is, of volcanic origin. Actually, both sides turned out to be partly right – though I regret to say that the Americans were more right than the British...

During a period of little more than ten years, thanks to robot space probes such as Ranger, Surveyor, Lunik and the final triumph of the Apollo landings, the Moon ceased to be a remote object in the sky, but became a world whose soil now bears the imprint of human feet.

Even with the Moon – which we thought was a familiar object – there were many surprises. You may have seen the pre-1960 artists’ impressions of lunar landscapes; invariably they showed jagged peaks and needles of rock, stabbing into a black sky full of stars – even in the daytime. Well, the lunar hills and mountains are not jagged; they are gently rounded, having been sand-blasted smooth by aeons of meteoric impact. And you can’t see the stars, at least with the unprotected eye; the glare from the surrounding landscape makes them invisible.


Beyond the Moon, there were only two other planets that gave more than the most fleeting glimpses of surface detail, Mars and Jupiter. And the case of Mars provides a tragi-comic example of human credulity and wishful thinking.


All that Mars shows through any terrestrial telescope is a little disc, smaller than the Moon to the naked eye, with a few faint smudges and a bright spot at one pole. That’s about it; Mars is so disappointing that I never show it to anyone, and seldom bother to look myself.

Years of studying those tiny images, plus generous doses of imagination and a touch of eye-strain, convinced some observers that Mars was covered with fine narrow lines – the notorious ‘canals’. If they existed, they appeared too regular to be natural, and the immediate assumption was that they were the product of high technology.


Even though many of our ideas about Mars have turned out to be incorrect, at least we did know something about its size, temperature and surface conditions; it was not a completely unknown world. But beyond Mars, our space probes were entering into a region were our ignorance was almost total, which was what made the Pioneer and Voyager missions so exciting. No one knew what to expect among the multitudinous moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Even the largest of these distant worlds appears only a minute pin-head in the most powerful telescope. We knew their approximate sizes – that was all.

It was reasonable to suppose that they would turn out to be rather like our Moon – dead, crater-covered globes of no particular interest, once the initial excitement of seeing them in close-up had worn off. But we were in for a big surprise – proving that Nature is infinitely ingenious, and that we can seldom out-guess her.


But much more exciting discoveries were to come. Jupiter has at least a dozen small moonlets, and four giant ones – the Galilean satellites, so-called because Galileo was the first man to see them, when he pointed his newly invented telescope at the planet in 1609. They are named after four of the participants in the god’s rather wide-ranging love-life – Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

Callisto, the outermost of the four, is the only one that didn’t produce surprises. It turned to be covered with craters – like our Moon, only even more so. In fact, it is the most heavily bombarded body in the solar system. Any more craters would simply destroy existing ones.

But when they saw the first pictures of the inner moon Io, the astronomers were completely baffled. They couldn’t find a single crater! Yet Io, like all the other bodies in the solar system, must have been bombarded at some time in its history. Where had the craters gone?

The astonishing answer is that Io is in a state of furious volcanic activity; its entire surface is being continually reworked.

It is certainly one of the strangest worlds we have yet encountered. Looking at the photos, one can sympathize with the scientist who remarked: ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with Io, but a good dose of penicillin should fix it...’

Europa, next door, is quite different – and even more mysterious. It’s covered in canals – like the ones that men once thought they saw on Mars!

And Ganymede – largest of them all, seems to be covered with ploughed fields – except that the furrows are hundreds of metres wide...

What is happening out on these strange worlds? We may know a lot more in about five years time. The proposed Galileo spaceprobe will go into orbit around the giant planet, looking at all the moons in turn, and not merely flashing by for one brief encounter like the Voyagers.

For after their rendezvous with Jupiter, they were deflected – and accelerated by its gravitational field – on to Saturn. Here again they were going into virtually unknown territory, and also heading towards two of the most interesting of all satellites. Titan – large enough to be called a world in its own right – is the only satellite on which an atmosphere has been detected; the spectroscope has revealed methane. And Iapetus has the extraordinary characteristic of being almost ten times brighter on one side than on the other.

The first surprise on reaching Saturn was that its beautiful ring system was infinitely more complex than had ever been suspected.

Telescopic observations had revealed at least three rings, and some astronomers had suspected more. But no one dreamed that there would be hundreds – perhaps a thousand – and that some of them would be eccentric and even braided together like a rope!

And the atmosphere of Titan was also a surprise – it turns out to be several times denser than Earth’s and to consist mostly of nitrogen. This was a blow to me personally, as in my novel Imperial Earth I’d assumed (as was widely believed at the time) that Titan’s atmosphere was primarily hydrogen... Well, you can’t win them all...

Now Voyager 1 has gone on to the stars, and Voyager 2 is heading for a rendezvous with the next outer planet, Uranus. What will it find there? The only thing that will be surprising is that there are no surprises...

I am sorry to keep quoting myself, but I would like to end with the concluding words of a book I wrote about deep-space probes in 1972[9], when Voyager was still several years in the future:

We should build them well, for one day they may be the only evidence that the human race existed. All the works of man on his own world are ephemeral, seen from the viewpoint of geological time. The winds and the rains which have destroyed mountains will make short work of the Pyramids, those recent experiments in immortality. The most enduring monuments we have yet created stand on the Moon, or circle the Sun; but even these will not last forever.

For when the Sun dies, it will not end with a whimper. In its final paroxysm, it will melt the inner planets to slag, and set the frozen outer giants erupting in geysers wider than the continents of Earth. Nothing will be left on, or even near, the world where he was born, of Man and his works.

But hundreds – thousands – of light-years outward from Earth, some of the most exquisite masterpieces of his hand and brain will still be drifting down the corridor of stars. The energies that powered them will have been dead for eons, and no trace will remain of the patterns of logic that once pulsed through the crystal labyrinths of their minds.

Yet they will still be recognizable, while the universe endures, as the work of beings who wondered about it long ago, and sought to fathom its secrets.         


Who’s Afraid of Leonard Woolf?[10]

In October 1904, I sailed from Tilbury Docks in the P&O Syria for Ceylon… when we disembarked… I went to the GOH, the Grand Oriental Hotel, which in those days was indeed both grand and oriental…

So Leonard Woolf records in the opening chapters of Growing: an autobiography of the years 1904 to 1911. Almost exactly fifty years later I followed the same route in the P&O Himalaya when she sailed from Tilbury in December 1954, though owing to a slight detour to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef I did not actually check into the GOH (now, as the Hotel Taprobane, even less G and O) until 1956. Somewhat incredibly, Woolf himself was back again four years later, at the age of eighty, on a final triumphal tour of Ceylon, and I am sorry to have missed him. Not until 1979 – ten years after his death – did I finally make his acquaintance. More than that; for a couple of days, I became him.

But first, back to 1904…

In seven years of energetic over-achievement, the conscientious young Cambridge graduate rose from a humble Cadet in the Ceylon Civil Service to Assistant Government Agent. By the age of 28 he had so impressed the Governor-General that he was put in charge of a major area along the south coast of the island; to quote from a letter he wrote to Lytton Strachey on 2 October 1908 he was

on my own in my district which is about 1,000 square miles with 100,000 people in it… I live at the Hambantota Residency… 26 miles away on one side are two Europeans, a judge and a Supt of Police and 20 miles away on the other is another, an Irrigation Engineer.

The young AGA loved Ceylon and its people, but administered his mini-empire with an honesty and impartiality that did not always endear him to his subjects. When he returned to England for a year’s leave in 1911, he had decided that even the most benevolent imperialism, for all the good that it undoubtedly brought in terms of peace, justice and improved standards of health and education, could not be morally justified. He had also fallen in love with Virginia Stephen, and the combination of these two factors was more powerful than the claims of the Colonial Office. So he resigned, married Virginia, founded the Hogarth Press, and helped to launch one of today’s major growth industries, the Bloomsbury business.

But Ceylon continued to haunt him, even when he was courting Virginia and resuming acquaintance with Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, the Bells, and the other luminaries of his Cambridge days. He had been back only six months when he started to write The Village in the Jungle, which was published two years later (1913) by the Hogarth Press.

Though much less well-known than A Passage to India (which, incidentally, might never have been completed without Woolf’s encouragement), many consider it the better book. It is certainly an astonishing feat of sympathetic imagination for a young colonial administrator to enter so completely into the minds of Sinhalese peasants that his novel has now become a classic in their own language.


Stories of such inspissated gloom, however superbly crafted, do not normally appeal to movie-makers. But for many years, Sri Lanka’s most eminent director, Lester James Peries, had set his heart upon filming Village, and after somewhat Byzantine negotiations had managed to obtain the rights. Still more remarkably, he had raised sufficient money for the production, and early in 1979 announced that filming would soon commence in the actual setting of the novel, the Hambantota district.


The shooting in which I was involved had to be done during the weekend, because only then was the District Court available; come Monday, the defendants in the dock would be genuine ones, not actors… Luckily the only change necessary was the removal of the Seal of the Republic of Sri Lanka, and its temporary replacement with the Royal Crest. Nothing else had altered since Leonard Woolf’s time.

But the world around had certainly changed. The very evening I arrived, gliding in the air-conditioned comfort of my Mercedes-Benz over the road along which Woolf had jolted in bullock carts for a couple of dusty days, I had to address a science fiction convention in Washington. The Resthouse telephone was tied up for an hour while my words winged their way via the local microwave beam to the Earth Station near Colombo, and thence to the satellite 22,000 miles overhead. So it is amusing to discover that Woolf wrote in his diary for 23 September 1908: ‘Personally I hate machinery in this country. Very few natives can be got to understand it; in fact in Hambantota itself it has been found impossible to keep an ordinary village pump working at the wells for more than a few days.’ Needless to say, the satellite station I was using was being run by the local ‘natives’.

Next morning, I was dressed in my Edwardian colonial garb and patiently thatched by the make-up man, who restored all the hair that had unaccountably disappeared over the past few decades; the result was sufficiently judicial to terrify the innocent, let alone the guilty. But as I had never done any acting in my life – and had seen the script only two days earlier – there was no way of predicting the outcome when I finally appeared before the camera. ‘The next couple of hours,’ I told Lester, ‘will decide whether you’re filming Village in the Jungle or Carry on, Judge.’


By working steadily all through Sunday, we managed to finish shooting at dusk. The Royal Arms were taken down, and the Court was handed back to the Republic of Sri Lanka for its normal operations. Tomorrow morning, half our Bar would still be there – because they were real lawyers, not actors. I was never sure which was which, and the genuine items returned the compliment by saying that they couldn’t tell I wasn’t a real judge. I certainly felt like one, as I interrogated the prisoners – even though one of them was an old friend of twenty years standing.

Monday was our day in the jungle, and for the first time in my life I wore a solar topee. To my surprise, it was extremely light and comfortable; I am sure it would still be popular if it didn’t look so hopelessly Colonial-Kiplingesque. Only fifty years ago, the superstitious Europeans were convinced that anyone who ventured outdoors without a topee would be instantly smitten by that wholly mythical malady, sunstroke.

For the purposes of the movie, two Beddagamas had been constructed – one Before, and one After. The first was a reasonably prosperous and well-populated village, at which I arrived by bullock cart with a set of census forms; and accompanied by a uniform official, the Rate (pronounced ‘Ratay’) Mahatmaya, or local district supervisor. This was the opportunity for a delightful and completely authentic bit of dialogue:

LW: This rinderpest business is terrible. But the villagers won’t take any precautions – they blame it all on Halley’s Comet.

RM: Another evil they blame on the comet, sir, is a very strict Government Agent.

In 1910, the year of the comet, the villagers did indeed compare Leonard Woolf unfavourably to his kind-hearted predecessor. Also in that year, the dreadful cattle disease rinderpest wiped out whole herds in the Hambantota district; having to shoot stray cattle did not add to Woolf’s popularity. His own reaction to the most famous of celestial visitors is, to say the least, unusual:

The head of the comet was just above the horizon, the tail flamed up the sky until the end of it was almost above our heads... it was a superb spectacle; as a work of art, magnificent. And I suppose it is what is called awe-inspiring. But there is something about these spectacular displays of nature, about the heavenly bodies and the majestic firmament which, while I admire them as works of art, also irritates me. From my point of view – the human point of view – there is something ridiculous about the universe – these absurd comets racing round the sun and the absurd suns flaming away at impossible speeds through illimitable empty space. Such futility is sinister in its silliness...
Growing, Chapter 4

That certainly puts the universe in its place, as a rather ill-managed extension of Bloomsbury.

With Brendan Behan: A Personal Memoir[11]

Before we get any further, I had better admit that I never met Brendan Behan in my life, though I still don’t understand how I managed to miss him. To make matters worse, my image of him is irrevocably coloured by Peter Sellers’s ‘In a Free State’ (recorded on EMI PMC 1111, 1959). In this brilliant parody – at least, I thought it was a parody before I read this book – the temperamental Irish playwright Brendan Behan eventually strangles his hapless BBC interviewer when he discovers that the studio carafe contains (ugh) water. (‘What’s this filthy stuff doing here? A man could die o’ thirst...’)

So what am I doing here? It’s a long story and begins in the mid-1950s, when I first discovered the Hotel Chelsea and its unique fauna. For almost a quarter of a century, the Chelsea was my second home – the base from which I ventured out on lecture tours, flew to Cape Canaveral for Moon shots, and even managed to do some work, despite the surrounding distractions. Thus the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey was written – several times – up on the tenth floor.

One of the many reasons I felt at home in the Chelsea was its totally democratic easygoing atmosphere; about the only house rule was ‘Bring out your own dead.’ As a natural-born slob who hates ties even more than socks (I must be the only person ever to attend an IBM banquet wearing a sarong – which I hasten to add is purely male attire here in Sri Lanka), I was happy to wander round the lobby and echoing stairway in whatever I grabbed first from the clothes closet. At least that is my recollection; but another resident suggests that my wardrobe must have contained a few conventional items:

The Chelsea, a seedy, run-down, part residential, part transient, past-its-prime hotel, has long been a home for notorious writers like Thomas Wolfe, Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas and Clifford Irving. More recently it has become a mecca for way-out British rock-and-roll groups ‘on the road’ in the United States. But though Clarke loved the free and easy atmosphere of the Chelsea, he couldn’t quite go along with it all the way. He continued to rise at 7 A.M., don his customary English suit, vest and tie, and, with attaché case in hand, venture into the totally deserted corridors and elevators still pervaded with the stale marijuana smoke of the up-till-dawn Chelsea clientele.

Thus wrote Dr Jerry Grey, in his lively book about the Space Shuttle (Enterprise, William Morrow, 1979). He must have caught me on my way to the CBS-TV studios, or on my first (but not second) day at the Time-Life Books division. In any event, Jerry’s independent assessment of the Chelsea’s ambience will prove that I am not exaggerating.

Looking back on those years, it seems to me that most of the friends and acquaintances I made in the United States were first encountered at the Chelsea. Amongst them was an Irish seaman and ex-boxer named Peter Arthurs, who disappeared from time to time into gigantic oil tankers and then emerged, in a crippled condition, to sue the owners for negligence. When he was not hobbling between the Seamen’s Union, his lawyer, and the hotel, Peter had plenty of time for conversations and socializing, so it was inevitable that we should meet sooner or later in the lobby or the immediately adjacent bar.


Like most Irishmen, drunk, sober, or half-and-half, Peter was a good talker and was full of stories about his old buddy Brendan. When, by the mid-1960s, I’d heard these for the seventh or eighth time, I finally said in exasperation: ‘Why don’t you write them down?’ It was obvious that Peter had a great deal of unique information about Brendan, which might be of interest to a wide public. I also thought (and hoped) that the discipline of writing would (a) keep Peter away from the gargle (q.v.) and (b) provide the psychotherapy which, as we sane, well-balanced English are much too polite to mention, all refugees from Erin badly need to overcome environmental handicaps.

After a lot of prodding, and sundry emotional and financial crises, Peter bought a stack of paper and started to write down everything he remembered about Brendan. When he could no longer afford to live at the Chelsea, he holed up in a downtown loft, where his manuscript was in a permanent danger of being eaten by cockroaches. (Peter ran no small risk himself, if they ever caught him when he couldn’t fight back.) I met him whenever I was in town, made sure that he had at least one good meal at El Quijote or the Angry Squire, and provided any other assistance that seemed necessary. This was not always easy to decide; it is fatal to throw too many life belts to struggling authors.


Now, having just completed my first reading of the whole manuscript a few hours ago, I am still slightly punch-drunk. My sense of syntax is partly paralyzed, and it will take me some time to unscramble my vocabulary. I don’t envy Peter’s editors (there must be more than one – no single person could stay the course) but I sincerely hope that there will be the minimum of tampering with the original text. Much of it reminds me of James Joyce – except that Peter’s meaning is always perfectly clear, however unorthodox his use of words.

I congratulate him on performing an extraordinary feat of literary reincarnation. His book, unlike many in the marketplace today, delivers exactly what its title promises. When you turn these pages you will be, whether you like it or not, With Brendan Behan.

Colombo, Sri Lanka
7 June 1980

Mysterious World[12]

Mysteries come in so many shapes and sizes that it is almost impossible to classify them. One useful way of doing so is to divide them into three categories, based on our current level of understanding. Borrowing shamelessly, let us call them Mysteries of the First, Second and Third Kind.

A Mystery of the First Kind is something that was once utterly baffling, but is now completely understood. Virtually all natural phenomena fall into this category; one of the most familiar, and beautiful, examples is the rainbow. To ancient man, this must have been an awe-inspiring, even terrifying sight. There was no way he could explain it, except as the creation of some superior intelligence; witness the version in Genesis, when Jehovah tells Noah that he will set His sign in the heavens...

The true explanation of the rainbow had to wait for Sir Isaac Newton’s proof that ‘white’ light is really a blend of all possible colours, which may be separated by a prism – or by drops of water floating in the sky. After the publication of Newton’s Optics in 1704, there was no further mystery about the rainbow – but all its magic and beauty remained. Some foolish people think that science takes the wonder out of the universe; the exact opposite is the truth. Genuine understanding is not only more useful than superstition or myth; it is almost always much more interesting.


Mysteries of the Second Kind are what this book, and the television series on which it is based, are all about. They are mysteries which are still mysteries, though in some cases we may have a fairly good idea of the answers. Often the trouble is that there are too many answers; we would be quite satisfied with any one of them, but others appear equally valid. The most spectacular modern example is, of course, the UFO phenomenon, where the range of explanations extends from psychic manifestations through atmospheric effects to visiting spaceships – and, to make matters even more complicated, the range of eager explainers runs from complete lunatics to hard-headed scientists. (There are some soft-headed scientists in this field as well.) All that I will say about the controversial subject of UFOlogy at this point is that where there are so many answers, there is something wrong with the questions.


Yet there are some Mysteries that may remain forever of the Second Kind. This is particularly true where historical events are concerned, because once the evidence has been lost or destroyed, there is no way in which it can be recovered. One can conjecture endlessly about such famous enigmas as the true identities of Kaspar Hauser, or the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, or Homer. Unless someone invents a method of looking into the past – extremely unlikely, yet not quite impossible – we may never know. Scientists are more fortunate than historians, for Nature does not destroy evidence; all the questions they ask are ultimately answered – though in the process they invariably uncover new and more difficult ones.

Mysteries of the Third Kind are the rarest of all, and there is very little that can be said about them; some sceptics argue that they do not even exist. They are phenomena – or events – for which there appears to be no rational explanation; in the cases where there are theories to account for them, these are even more fantastic than the ‘facts’.

Perhaps the quintessential M3K is something so horrible that – even if the material existed – one would prefer not to use it in a television programme. It is the extraordinary phenomenon known as Spontaneous Human Combustion.

There have been many recorded cases, supported by what seems to be indisputable medical evidence, of human bodies being consumed in a very short period of time by an extremely intense heat which has often left the surroundings – even the victim’s clothing! – virtually untouched. The classic fictional case is in Dickens’s Bleak House, but there are dozens of similar incidents in real life – and probably a far greater number that have never been reported.

The human body is not normally a fire hazard; indeed, it takes a considerable amount of fuel to arrange a cremation. There seems no way in which this particular mystery can ever be solved, without a great deal more evidence – and who would wish for that?

A less appalling, though sometimes very frightening, Mystery of the Third Kind is the Poltergeist (from the German – literally, ‘noisy spirit’). Although a healthy scepticism is required when dealing with all paranormal phenomena, because extraordinary happenings require extraordinarily high standards of verification, there is impressive evidence that small objects can be thrown around, or even materialized, with no apparent physical cause. Usually there is a disturbed adolescent somewhere in the background, and although adolescents – disturbed or otherwise – are perfectly capable of raising hell by non-paranormal means, this persistent pattern over so many cultures, and such a long period of time, suggests that something strange is going on. If so, it is a complete mystery, and such labels as ‘psychokinesis’ are only fig-leaves to conceal our ignorance.


Which leads me to my final point. I said at the beginning that there were three kinds of Mystery; now let me add a fourth – Mysteries of the Zeroeth Kind...

The only mystery about these is that anyone ever thought they were mysterious. The classic example is the Bermuda Triangle, though this has not prevented countless writers, some of whom may even believe the rubbish they are regurgitating, repeating the same nonsense over and over again. The stories of vanishing aircraft and ships in this region, when the original sources are examined, usually turn out to be perfectly explicable and commonplace tragedies. Indeed, it is a considerable tribute to the Florida Coast Guard that there are so few disappearances in this busy area, among the legions of amateur sailors and weekend pilots who venture out across it, often with totally inadequate preparation.

A glance at any display of paperbacks will, alas, disclose a ripe collection of Mysteries of the Zeroeth Kind – the mental junk food of our generation. It is a pity that there is no way of labelling books that rot the mind: WARNING! READING THIS BOOK MAY BE DANGEROUS TO YOUR MENTAL HEALTH! but the practical difficulties are obvious. What a pity it is not possible for some public-spirited benefactor to purchase copies of the latest flying saucer guide book, revelation from Atlantis, or pyramidal insanity, and then sue the author for incompetence. Even if he was awarded no more than the price of the book, it would be a lot of fun!

Sometime it doesn’t really matter, and there may even be occasions when the most rubbishy of books may open up a mind to the wonders of the universe (as bad science fiction can also do). But there are times when real harm can be done to serious and important studies, or to the elucidation of genuine mysteries, by the activities of frauds, cranks and hoaxers. Thus the idea that earth may have had visitors from space is a perfectly reasonable one; indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is surprising if it has not done so during the past billions of years of its existence. Unfortunately, books full of faked ‘evidence’ and imbecile archaeology have scared serious researchers away from the field. So it is with the study of UFOs – which, despite all the nonsense that has been written about them, may yet turn out to be important and interesting.

It is my hope that this book [Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World] and the series on which it is based, will help all those interested in the truth to distinguish between real mysteries and fraudulent ones. True wisdom lies in preserving the delicate balance between scepticism and credulity. The universe is such a strange and wonderful place that reality will always outrun the wildest imagination; there will always be things unknown, and perhaps unknowable.

Which is very lucky for us; perhaps it means that, whatever other perils humanity may face in the future that lies ahead, boredom is not among them.

Writing to Sell[13]

The printed form which my secretary sends out in answer to 95 percent of my mail ends with these uncompromising words:

‘So many publishers and authors have asked me to comment on books, or to write prefaces, that I am now forced to turn down all such requests, no matter how good the cause.’

Now Scott Meredith jolly well knows this, for his office also sends out skillions of these forms in the hope of heading the mailman off at the pass. So what the heck am I doing here?

I’ll tell you exactly how it happened. It began with a phone call to Scott from my dear friend Isaac Asimov. ‘Scott,’ he said desperately, ‘I’m only 150 books ahead of Arthur – he’s catching up. If you can slow him down just a bit, I’ll give you the Lower Slobovian Second Serial Rights of Asimov’s Guide to Cricket – without TV residuals, of course.’

‘Throw in that illustrated Braille Kama Sutra I know you're working on,’ Scott replied instantly, ‘and you have a deal.’

‘Done,’ said Isaac, whereupon Scott merely threatened to give my address to 589 people who want to know the real and secret message in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and here I am...

It was, for heaven’s sake, just over a quarter of a century ago that Scott and I first met in person, as I stepped off the ocean liner (remember them?) on to the sacred concrete of Manhattan. At that time he looked about eighteen and wasn’t too much older than that, and was thus only the second or third best literary agent in the United States; and he was also still in a state of shock over the fact that he’d cabled to say that my book, The Exploration of Space, had just become a Book of the Month Club selection, and I’d replied by asking innocently, ‘What is the Book of the Month Club?’


In all seriousness, I do not believe that any writer, however experienced he may fondly consider himself to be, could fail to benefit from this book. The fact that it is also highly entertaining doesn’t do any harm; several times, I found myself laughing out loud. It says a good deal for Scott’s sense of humour that it has survived so many decades of contact with authors... not to mention editors.

It would be impertinent of me to add anything to Scott’s hard-won advice – so, I’ll be impertinent.

It’s always seemed to me that the biggest single problem any author has to face is: When should I give up? Scott would say ‘Never!’ and, as he describes in ‘Inspiration, Perspiration, Desperation’, he has a special padded cell, equipped only with typewriter and a good supply of paper, in which he occasionally locks up authors to prove this theory. But it really isn’t as simple as that.

Agreed, authors have an amazing capacity for inventing excuses not to work. (Mine is a beautiful little monkey who cries piteously if not loved every hour, on the hour.) But there are times when no amount of staring at the typewriter and sweating blood will produce anything except frustration; you must learn to recognize those times.

Then you have two choices; you can switch to writing something completely different or, if that doesn’t work, you must quit altogether. It was, I believe, Hemingway who said, ‘Writing is not a full-time occupation.’ That’s true in more ways than one. You must live before you can write. And you must live while you are writing. But you mustn’t kid yourself, and make excuses to stop work by confusing laziness with that old standby ‘lack of inspiration’. There is a lot of truth in the hard saying, ‘A professional can write even when doesn’t feel like it. An amateur can’t – even when he does.’

The other big problem is to know when a job is finished. Sorry about all these quotations, but this is the most important yet: ‘No work of art is ever finished; it is only abandoned.’
Old-time pros may snort indignantly at this; racing deadlines, they couldn’t afford the time even for a second draft. Lester del Rey – another thoroughbred from the Scott Meredith stables, another staff editor who became and remains a Scott Meredith client – could sit at the typewriter and produce, within two hours, a pretty good 6,000-word story. That’s real professionalism, which I can only view with incredulous awe.

On another occasion, Lester sat down after breakfast and mailed off a 20,000-word novelette the same night. He admits that it might have been better if he’d left it until next morning, tinkering and revising and polishing for ever; sometimes it is as hard to stop work on a piece as it was to start in the first place. But unless you’re a poet turning out one slim volume every twenty years, you must learn to recognize the point of diminishing returns, and send your 99.9 per cent completed masterpiece out into the cruel hard world. There’s nothing wrong with amateurism (in the best sense of that misused word); but all serious artists are interested in money. And that means all great artists, too; take a look some day at Beethoven’s correspondence with the London Philharmonic.

I’m in a generous mood this morning, possibly because of the $0.87 quarterly cheque I’ve just received for my five shares of Comsat stock. So here, to give you inspiration, are a few ideas for books that I feel somebody ought to write. They cover a pretty wide range – biography, history, crime, science fiction, medical – with a couple of guaranteed bestsellers thrown in:

Jonathan Livingstone Sea-Slug by Richard Botch

The inspirational saga of one of Nature's humblest organisms, an adventurous Abominable Sea-slug (Mucus horribilis). Jonathan, born – or rather, fissioned – in a sewer outlet off Flushing, feels a dim impulse for higher things, and conceives the brave ambition of slithering upward to the glorious world above the waves. Unfortunately, despite the amazing camouflage that makes him almost indistinguishable from his surroundings, Jonathan is eaten by an even more revolting creature, the Squamous Scavenger Fish (Scatophagus vomitous), before completing his odyssey.

Defender of the Doomed by Melvin Lee Darrell

The aptly-entitled autobiography of the famous criminal lawyer, whose courtroom exploits – hopefully – are never likely to be equalled. Mr Darrell fought to save no less than 98 clients from gas chamber or electric chair – and lost them all. Now, for the first time, we learn exactly how he did it.

Certainly, no great skill was required in the case of Hieronomous Hackworthy, found standing among fifteen badly dishevelled corpses with a dripping axe in his hand. What required real legal genius was losing Obediah Flimp (charged with parking his Volkswagen in a towaway zone), Rosalie Polkington (overdue copy of Little Women at the 23rd Street Public Library) and Theodore Kumquat (smoking in subway train). The brilliant manner in which Mr Darrell escalated these and similar cases until his clients were involved in capital crimes will arouse admiration even in the reader totally ignorant of courtroom procedures...

From Sea to Slimy Sea (Sierra Club)

Undoubtedly the publishing novelty of the season, and the basis for an unusual and instructive blindfold guessing game. Each page of this volume is a sheet of blotting-paper, impregnated with water from a major American lake or river. (Not for sale where prohibited by State health regulations.)

Your Own ICBM by General ‘Bat’ Guano, USAF (Ret.)

Most readers will be surprised to learn that obsolete but perfectly usable Atlas and Titan missiles may be purchased for very reasonable sums from military surplus dealers. This comprehensive guide gives addresses of suppliers, current prices, maintenance and check-out instructions – in fact, everything the enthusiast needs for his very own countdown.

Some readers may feel that the author is exaggerating slightly when he claims that the constitutional right of the citizen to bear arms should provide encouragement for this unusual hobby. Unfortunately, suitable payloads have not yet reached the surplus market, but as soon as they are available General Guano promises a second edition.

Olympic Odyssey by Micron Q. Titmouse Jr. (as told to Herbert Flack)

The inspiring account of one man’s determination to fight injustice. At the age of ten, when already fifteen inches tall, Mr Titmouse resolved to become the world’s smallest weightlifter; he was largely responsible for the International Court ruling which prohibited the Olympic Committee from discriminating against midgets. Tragically, before he could take part in the preliminary trials, Mr Titmouse was fatally mangled by a runaway electric toothbrush.

There is an indignant epilogue by Ralph Nader.

Programming Instructions for the HAL 9000 Computer (revised edition)

The new edition of the HAL 9000 Handbook has been updated to incorporate improvements suggested by this versatile machine’s surviving users. In particular, the manufacturers suggest that priority be given to the retrofitting of small explosive charges at strategic points in the Central Memory Unit.

‘If You’re Not a Furrier, Why Are You in the Movies?’ by Jonathan H. Jolt

The inside story of prestressed-liverwurst tycoon ‘Go’ Jolt’s brief presidency of financially harassed Megatherium productions. Naturally, much of the book is devoted to an absorbing account of negative capital transfers, reversible stock options, non-commutative sinking funds, reciprocal liquidations – and, of course, Mr Jolt’s masterpiece, the escalating tax write-off which caused a wave of suicides at the Department of Internal Revenue.

Nevertheless, he does not neglect the production side of the business, and there is a fascinating description of his vain attempt to get the studio involved in new projects that would appeal to changing tastes. It seems a pity that we shall never see the proposed ‘Hair’ on Ice, the all-nude Wuthering Heights, or the large-scale musical version of Robinson Crusoe, with Man Friday as a militant Black Panther.

Fahrenheit 251 by Freeman Compote

A penetrating and sympathetic study of Jefferson Beauregard Lowell III, the wealthy, handsome, well-adjusted Phi Beta Kappa all-round athlete and Junior Chamber of Commerce award-winner who contrived the first of the widely-imitated jumbo jet massacres. ‘Jeff’ Lowell’s unfortunate peccadillo, Mr Compote demonstrates beyond any doubt, was triggered by the fact that at the age of two he was not allowed to sleep with his Teddy bear. This cruel deprivation severely warped his personality, with very unhappy results for 542 complete strangers.

The appropriateness of the title becomes clear only at the brilliantly-written climax of the book. 251 degrees Fahrenheit, Mr Compote informs us, is the temperature at which human blood boils.

The Hundred and First on the Moon by Commander Hank Klugenschaft

The eagerly-awaited story of the voyage of Apollo 67. Commander Klugenschaft reveals many new facts about the mission – such as his reason for marooning his colleague, Major Orville Snitt, on the Moon. ‘Fuzz’ Snitt – who may still be seen from time to time gesticulating frantically on TV as he wanders from one landing site to another in search of expendables – had a most unfortunate failing. He persistently cheated at Scrabble.

Another startling disclosure is that there have actually been one hundred and two living creatures on the Moon. The unpublicized visitor was NASA Administrator’s Great Dane ‘Snaggletooth’, who wandered aboard the unmanned freight-carrier Apollo 34 and was somehow overlooked during the meticulous pre-flight inspection.

The Quest for the Quirk by Dr Rififi Munchhausen

One of the most bizarre episodes in modern science, as recounted by the leading character. Dr Munchhausen, a brilliant young nuclear physicist, predicted the existence of an important new fundamental particle – the Quirk, or female Quark – and persuaded the French government to grant him funds for a large-scale research.

A retired luxury liner was fitted out as a floating laboratory, and cruised for almost a year along the Magnetic Equator, with frequent refuelling stops at Tahiti, Hawaii and Bali. One of the ship’s swimming pools was converted into a giant particle detector and filled with absorbing fluid; for obscure technical reasons, the ideal liquid turned out to be Château-d’Yquem ’75. A small army of assistants was recruited to feed the resulting data into the on-board computer: photographs of at least a score of these striking young ladies give Dr Munchhausen’s book a flavour not usually found in scientific work.

Unfortunately, the project was just getting nicely under way when a rival physicist proved that Quirks could have existed only for the first 0.003 microseconds after the creation of the universe. At this point, the Ministry of Science sent a warship to recall the expedition.

Dr Munchhausen is now permanently domiciled on Devil’s Island, in a small hut whose previous resident, interestingly enough, was Captain Alfred Dreyfus.

Of Sand and Stars[14]

Forty miles to the east, the Sun has just climbed above the Sacred Mountain which for so long has haunted my imagination. Another quarter turn of the planet, and it will bring a cold winter dawn to the English seaside town where I was born sixty-five years ago this morning.

So it is already a little late in the day to consider why I became an author, or to wonder if there was ever any real alternative; that may have been as genetically determined as the colour of my eyes or the shape of my head. But the kind of author I became is another matter: here, I suspect, both chance and environment played decisive roles.

The fact that I was born half a mile from the sea – or at least an arm of the Bristol Channel which to a child seemed positively oceanic – has certainly coloured all my life. As usual, A. E. Housman expressed it perfectly, in the poem from which I took the title of my first novel:

Smooth between sea and land
Is laid the yellow sand,
And here through summer days
The seed of Adam plays.[15]

Much of my youth was spent on the Minehead beach, exploring rock-pools and building wave-defying battlements. Even now, I feel completely relaxed only by the edge of the sea – or, better still, hovering weightless beneath it, over the populous and polychromatic landscapes of my favourite reef.

So in an earlier age, I would probably have written stories about the sea. However, I was born at the time when men were first thinking seriously of escaping from their planetary cradle, and so my imagination was deflected into space.

Yet first I made a curious detour, which is obviously of great importance because it involves virtually the only memory I have of my father – a shadowy figure who has left no other mark, even though I was over thirteen when he died.

The date would have been around 1925; we were riding in a small pony-cart near the Somerset farm into which First Lieutenant Charles Wright Clarke had sunk what was left of his army gratuity, after an earlier and still more disastrous adventure as a gentleman-farmer. As he opened a pack of cigarettes, he handed me the card inside; it was one of a series illustrating prehistoric animals. From that moment I became hooked on dinosaurs, collected all the cards I could on the subject, and used them in class to illustrate little adventure stories I told the other children in the village school. These must have been my first ventures into fiction – and the schoolmistress who encouraged them celebrated her birthday a week ago. Sorry I forgot to send a card, Maud Hanks – I’ll make a special point of it for your 95th...

There is a certain irony in the fact that the tobacco trade (one of the few professions where I consider the mandatory death penalty is justified) had such a decisive and indeed beneficial effect on my career. To this day I retain my fascination with dinosaurs, and eagerly look forward to the time when the genetic engineers will re-create Tyrannosaurus Rex.[16]

For a couple of years I collected fossils, and one time even acquired a mammoth’s tooth, until the main focus of my interest shifted rather abruptly from the past to the future. Once again – significantly – I can recall exactly how this happened, though almost all the other events of my childhood seem irretrievably lost.

There were three separate crucial incidents, all of equal importance, and I can even date them with some precision. The earliest must have been in 1929, when at the age of twelve I saw my first science fiction magazine, the November 1928 Amazing Stories.

The cover is in front of me at the moment – and it really is amazing, for a reason which neither editor Hugo Gernsback nor artist Frank Paul could ever have guessed.

A spaceship looking like a farm silo with picture windows is disgorging its exuberant passengers on a tropical beach, above which floats the orange ball of Jupiter, filling half the sky. The foreground is, alas, improbable, because the temperature of the Jovian satellites is around minus a hundred and fifty degrees Centigrade. But the giant planet is painted with such stunning accuracy that one could use this cover to make a very good case for precognition; Paul has shown turbulent cloud formations, cyclonic patterns and enigmatic white structures like Earth-sized amoebae which were not revealed until the Voyager missions over fifty years later. How did he know?

Young readers of today, born into a world when science fiction magazines, books and movies are part of everyday life, cannot possibly imagine the impact of such garish pulps as that old Amazing and its colleagues Astounding and Wonder. Of course, the literary standards were usually abysmal – but the stories brimmed with ideas, and amply evoked that ‘sense of wonder’ which is (or should be) one of the goals of the best fiction. No less a critic than C. S. Lewis has described the ravenous addiction that these magazines inspired; the same phenomenon has led me to call science fiction the only genuine consciousness-expanding drug.


In 1930 I came under the spell of a considerably more literate influence, when I discovered W. Olaf Stapledon’s just-published Last and First Men in the Minehead Public Library. No book before or since ever had such an impact on my imagination; the Stapledonian vistas of millions and hundreds of millions of years, the rise and fall of civilizations and entire races of men, changed my whole outlook on the universe and has influenced much of my writing ever since. Twenty years later, as Chairman of the British Interplanetary Society, I persuaded Stapledon to give us an address on the social and biological aspects of space exploration, which he entitled ‘Interplanetary Man’. His was the noblest and most civilized mind I have ever encountered; I am delighted to see a revival of interest in his work, and have just contributed a preface to a new collection of his writings.[17]


No one else could have written Last and First Men – but if David Lasser had not written The Conquest of Space in 1931, something similar would certainly have appeared in a very few years. The time was ripe.

Although there was already considerable German and Russian literature on the subject, The Conquest of Space was the very first book in the English language to discuss the possibility of flight to the Moon and planets, and to describe the experiments and dreams (mostly the latter) of the early rocket pioneers. Only a few hundred copies of the British edition were sold, but chance brought one of them to a bookstore a few yards from my birthplace. I saw it in the window, knew instinctively that I had to read it, and persuaded my good-natured Aunt Nellie – who was looking after me while Mother struggled to run the farm and raise my three siblings – to buy it on the spot. And so I learned, for the first time, that space-travel was not merely delightful fiction. One day it could really happen. Soon afterwards I discovered the existence of the British Interplanetary Society, and my fate was sealed.


Despite all these influences, I was well over thirty before writing graduated from a pleasant and occasionally profitable hobby to a profession. The Civil Service, the Royal Air Force, and editorship of a scientific abstracting journal provided my bread-and-butter until 1950. By that time I had published numerous stories and articles, and a slim technical book, Interplanetary Flight. The modest success of this volume led me to seek a wider public with The Exploration of Space, which the Book of the Month Club, in a moment of wild abandon, made a dual selection in 1952.


This stroke of luck – repeated exactly thirty years later with 2010: Odyssey Two, so I can claim it wasn’t a fluke – encouraged me to give up my editorial job and become a full-time writer. It was not a very daring or heroic decision: if all else failed, I could always go back to the farm.

I was lucky; unlike most of the writers I know, I had very few setbacks and disappointments, and my rare rejection slips were doubtless thoroughly justified. And because every author is unique, the only advice I have ever been able to pass on to would-be writers is incorporated in a few lines on the notorious form letter which Archie, my word-processor, spits out at all hopeful correspondents at the drop of a floppy disk: ‘Read at least one book a day, and write as much as you can. Study the memoirs of authors who interest you. (Somerset Maugham’s A Writer’s Notebook is a good example.) Correspondence courses, writers’ schools, etc., are probably useful – but all the authors I know were self-taught. There is no substitute for living; as Hemingway wisely remarked, “Writing is not a full-time occupation.”’

Nor is reading – though it would have to be if I tried to keep up with the avalanche of science fiction now being published. I estimate that almost as much is printed each day as appeared every year when I was a boy.

Today’s readers are indeed fortunate; this really is the Golden Age of science fiction. There are dozens of authors at work today who can match all but the giants from the past. (And probably one who can do even that, despite the handicap of being translated from Polish...) Yet I do not really envy the young men and women who first encounter science fiction as the days shorten towards 1984, for we old-timers were able to accomplish something that was unique.

Ours was the last generation that was able to read everything. No one will ever do that again.


Beneath the Indian Ocean[18]

When you look at the map of India, you will see the island of Ceylon hanging from its southern tip like a tear-drop or a pendant, pear-shaped jewel. It is the last outpost of the northern hemisphere; beyond it, across the equator and all the way to the icy walls of Antarctica, lies the greatest unexplored region of this world – the Indian Ocean. Though men have sailed it for at least 3,000 years, the early mariners seldom ventured far from land. Even today, the only ships you are likely to find in the southern half of this great blank on the map are research vessels and the occasional whaler. The depths of the Indian Ocean may still hold their mysteries long after we have walked on the outermost of the planets.

Sea and space – to me these are two sides of the same coin. Looking back upon the last three decades, I now realize that it was my interest in astronautics that led me to the ocean. The process seems so inevitable that I grow more than a little impatient with those people who ask: ‘What are you doing underwater when you’ve written so many books about exploring space?’

Well, both involve exploration – but that’s not the only reason. When the first skin-diving equipment started to appear in the late 1940s, I suddenly realized that here was a cheap and simple way of imitating one of the most magical aspects of space flight – ‘weightlessness’. In those days, many physiologists were firmly convinced that the apparent absence of gravity would be fatal to the human organism; blood would rush to the head, vertigo would be incapacitating, the heart would race out of control, etc., etc. We ‘space cadets’, on the other hand, were equally certain that weightlessness would be a delightful experience – as, on the whole, it has turned out to be.


In due course I graduated to scuba gear and to the open sea. (Well, to the English Channel, which in those days was not carpeted – top and bottom – with oil-tankers.) And in 1954 I sailed to Australia to write a book about the Great Barrier Reef – the largest coral formation in the world, and probably the only object of organic origin on this planet which is visible from the Moon.

In those days there was a Suez Canal, and the Pacific and Orient liner Himalaya stopped for an afternoon in Colombo, the capital and chief port of Ceylon. There was just time for a visit to the world-famous zoo, where I met the assistant-director, Rodney Jonklaas – a trained zoologist and the only expert skin-diver I know who never uses a snorkel (I think he can breathe through the back of his neck). He convinced me that if I survived the perils of the Great Barrier Reef, I should look at the seas of Ceylon. In 1956 I followed his advice, never imagining that I would get hooked and would make the island my home. For the last 15 years I have left it only with great reluctance, and only for unavoidable reasons.

But Ceylon, although it is much better off than India, Pakistan and newly formed Bangladesh, is no earthly paradise; it has serious social and economic problems. Like New York, it is a fascinating place to visit, but anyone considering permanent residency should think twice. He must be prepared to face acute shortages of consumer goods – film, razors blades, suntan lotion, carbon paper, records – all the little necessities of life we take for granted in the West. Too, unless he has a fondness for ferocious curries, he may find the food rather monotonous. And, of course, it is very hot for much of the year, though the presence of the sea – never more than 60 miles away – has a moderating influence, and the hundred-plus extremes found in India are very rare. I have never been as uncomfortable in Ceylon as I have been in, say, Washington, DC.

Because the island is so close to the equator, the length of the day hardly varies throughout the year; it is always dark by 7 P.M. and there is not much to do after sunset. A few cinemas and modest nightclubs provide the available entertainment – and there is, as yet, no television. You’re on your own as soon as the sun commits its spectacular nightly suicide.

I long ago accepted these disadvantages, such as they are: indeed, to a writer, many of them are positive boons. Over the years I have built up a large library and, if all else fails, the Great Books could keep me busy until the 1980s. For other stimuli I have a small computer, a beloved German Shepherd named ‘Sputnik’, a battery of cameras and a fully equipped darkroom, a Questar telescope and a thousand miles of coastline to explore. Thanks to good roads most of it is easily accessible, which is more than can be said of the Great Barrier Reef’s immense coral universe.


Like all poor, developing countries, Ceylon is desperately trying to attract the tourists, and dollar for dollar probably offers one of the best bargains in the world. Its wild-life and animal reservations are outstanding: with reasonable luck, the visitor can see elephants, crocodiles, leopards, bears and innumerable varieties of birds, all in a single afternoon. And besides its natural resources, the island can show the evidence of 25 centuries continuous civilization and culture. Some of the great Buddhist shrines and ruined cities are contemporary with Rome.

I sometimes wonder if, in extolling Ceylon’s charms, I am not helping to destroy them. The jumbo jets are already descending upon Colombo’s Katunayake Airport, and the click of the Nikon is heard throughout the land. But there are still hundreds of miles of beach no tourist has ever seen, and virgin reefs where the fish gather round the diver with such fearless curiosity that he has to push them away before he can use his camera.

I am on my way to such a reef now, just before the first freezing winter fogs start drifting in from the Atlantic. It lies around a group of rocks half a mile out from a crescent arc of beach almost too perfect to be true – a classical composition of white sand, graceful palms and pure blue water.

There must be lost ships out there on the reef, because during the monsoon seasons those rocks are covered with a boiling mass of foam from which every few minutes walls of spray erupt 20 or 30 feet into the air. But from November through March there are days and weeks when the sky lies, all fury spent, smooth as oiled silk [skin?] under the sun. Then the reef can no longer guard its secrets – whatever they may be.

For years that reef at Unawatuna has been a perpetual challenge to me – as the hidden side of the Moon was to astronomers before the age of space. I have never been able to reach it because I have always had to dash off to London or New York or some other place before I could take advantage of the calm season. But this time, I promise myself...

And if the monsoon frustrates me again there will be other opportunities. Impatience is a Western vice which cannot survive beneath the equatorial sun. The reef can wait, and so can I; there is no age limit to diving. I still intend to be snorkeling down among corals – even in the year 2001.

The Menace of Creationism[19]

Today’s mail brings a letter from a schoolteacher in Anchorage, Alaska, with the request: ‘My students have been interested in the debate surrounding Evolution v Creation. I would value your opinion...’


But to return to the Alaskan teacher’s question: the blunt answer is that Evolution v Creationism is not a matter of opinion – mine or anyone else’s. Evolution is a FACT, period.

What is a matter of opinion is Darwinism. That is a THEORY – and it’s unfortunate that many people (sometimes deliberately, sometimes ignorantly) confuse the two.

The FACT of evolution is now almost as well established as the shape of the Earth – which, incidentally, is still denied by some religious fanatics, because there are several passages in the Bible which imply that the Earth is flat. Of course, no one can disprove the hypothesis that the world was created 6,000 years ago – or for that matter 6,000 seconds ago! – so that it now appears as it is, complete with faked fossils and an infinite wealth of phoney yet utterly convincing evidence indicating an age of millions of years. But such a theory is also impossible to prove; and why should God perpetrate such a gigantic fraud – such an insult to the intelligence which is our noblest attribute?


I find it almost incredible – and indeed tragic – that any intelligent person can possibly find the slightest threat to his religious beliefs in the concept of evolution, or the immense vistas of time opened up by geology and astronomy. On the contrary – they are infinitely more awe-inspiring and wonderful than the primitive (though often fascinating and beautiful) myths of our ancestors. Indeed, some devout Christians (the Jesuit priest Dr Teilhard de Chardin is the best-known example) have made them the very basis of their own fate.

So why do people who call themselves Christians object to evolution? I suspect that the reason isn’t very flattering: it damages their ego – their sense of self-importance. That same impulse made their counterparts, four hundred years ago, refuse to accept the now indisputable facts of astronomy.

That famous act of stubborn stupidity by the Catholic Church (though let’s be fair – Galileo was a cantankerous genius who practically insisted on martyring himself, despite the attempts of his many clerical friends to stop him) did more than any other event in history to destroy the credibility of the Christian religion. It also brought Italian science to a full stop for centuries – a chilling reminder of what a victory for creationism could do to American education.


In their 1981 book Space Travellers: The Bringers of Life, Dr Wickramasinghe and his colleague Sir Fred Hoyle suggest that the universe is literally infested with bacteria – perhaps originating in cometary environments, which are exceedingly rich in water, carbon and all the essentials of life. Startling though this theory is, they have now gone on to propose a far more revolutionary idea, which in a way is an updating of William Paley’s ‘argument from design’ – viz. ‘If you find anything as complicated as a watch – there must be a watch-maker.’

Hoyle and Wickramasinghe argue that the marvellously adapted life-forms on Earth (including us) were planned by a super-intelligence which ‘seeded’ our galaxy with spores, carefully designed to evolve into future higher organisms. The idea that God (or whatever you like to call our Creator) was a genetic engineer working with DNA a few billion years ago seems to me quite compatible with religious faith. Incidentally, the concept is not new; it was developed in Olaf W. Stapledon’s magnificent history Last and First Men. (A book which profoundly influenced my own career and writing.)

Hoyle’s and Wickramasinghe’s theories are, to say the least, stimulating; it will not be easy to prove or refute them. Even if they are wrong, they may be valuable in opening the eyes of biologists (and astronomers) to possibilities that have been overlooked – except by science fiction writers...

Finally, I would like to express my contempt for those who refuse to face the obvious fact that we are all part of the animal kingdom, and regard this as in some way demeaning. As Thomas Huxley said to poor Bishop Wilberforce when he demolished him in the 1860 Oxford debate: I would far rather have a humble ape for an ancestor, than a man who used his talents to oppose the search for truth...

Technically speaking, of course, we don’t have apes for ancestors: we both diverged from a common stock, hence the popular use of the word ‘cousin’ for the relationship. As one who still mourns for two deeply loved little monkeys, I would be proud to claim an even closer kinship.

When one looks at the incredibly diverse pattern of terrestrial life from the cosmic viewpoint, the apes and monkeys no longer seem our cousins – but our brothers and sisters.

Who, then, are our cousins? Why, of course, the flowers and the trees...

Does anyone object to that relationship?

[1] Address on World Telecommunications Day, United Nations, New York, 17 May 1983, as delivered to the General Assembly.
[2] “New Communications and the Developing World” reprinted in this book. Ed.
[3] Published as ‘The Best Is Yet to Come’, Time Magazine, 16 July 1979, p. 27.
[4] Lecture at the Second United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (Unispace ‘82), Vienna, 10 August 1982.
[5] Reprinted in Ascent to Orbit: A Scientific Autobiography, John Wiley & Sons, 1984. See also the short story “Maelstrom II” from the Collection The Wind from the Sun (1972). Ed.
[6] For a fine non-fiction overview, see “The Space Elevator: ‘Thought Experiment’, or Key to the Universe” (1981), reprinted in Part IX of Ascent to Orbit: A Scientific Autobiography (1984). For a stirring treatment in fiction, see The Fountains of Paradise (1979). Ed.
[7] “Space Travel in Fact and Fiction”, given on April 1, 1950. First published in two parts, Fantasy Advertiser, V4 #6, February 1951 & V5 #1, April 1951. Reprinted in Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! (1999). Essentially an early version of “Space Flight – Imagination and Reality”, highly repetitious but by no means identical. Ed.
[8] Chancellor’s Address at the University of Moratuwa Convocation, Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall, Colombo, 6 November 1981.
[9] Beyond Jupiter: The Worlds of Tomorrow, Little, Brown and Company, 1972, illustrated with 15 colour plates by Chesley Bonestell. The original version is slightly different than the quote here, but the differences are negligible. Ed.
[10] Apparently first published in this volume. Ed.
[11] Foreword to With Brendan Behan: A Personal Memoir by Peter Arthurs (St Martin's Press, New York, 1981).
[12]  Introduction to Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World by Simon Welfare and John Fairley (Collins, London, and A & W Visual Library, New York, 1980).
[13] Introduction to second revised edition of Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith (Harper and Row, New York, 1977). Some of the book synopses at the end were originally published in The Worm Runner’s Digest, vol. XIV, no. 2, 1972. Editor’s Note: a somewhat different version of this essay, containing only two of the ten synopses, is reprinted in Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!.
[14] First printed in the New York Times Book Review, xxx, 6 March 1983. Editor’s Note: slightly revised version was reprinted as an introduction to The Sentinel (1983).
[15] A. E. Housman, XLV. The title referred to is the last line of the third stanza. Against the Fall of Night was first published in Startling Stories for November 1948, but in book form only in 1953. It was probably written, or at least finished, after Prelude to Space, Arthur’s first novel dashed off for twenty days in the summer of 1947 (see the 1975 “Post-Apollo Preface”), but published only in 1951 (magazine) and 1953 (book). Ed.
[16] This was written seven years before Michael Crichton published Jurassic Park. Ed.
[17] The preface is “Last and First Books” reprinted in this volume. For Stapledon’s “Interplanetary Man”, see The Coming of the Space Age (1967). Ed.
[18] Originally published as ‘Ceylon: An Adventurer’s Retreat’ in True Magazine, April 1972, pp. 39, 42, 43.
[19] Apparently first published in this volume. Ed.